Tania León: What it Means to be an American Composer

Tania León: What it Means to be an American Composer

9. Organizing Composers

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. Let’s get back to the issue of the orchestra. And it’s great that you have the opportunity to work with so many orchestras. But so many composers find the orchestra situation really frustrating, because as a contemporary composer, it’s very hard to get through that door because that door is blocked by Brahms and Dvorák and Tchaikovsky and Beethoven and all these other composers. What are the opportunities for the contemporary composer to write for the orchestra and how do you break that stranglehold of the music of the past?

TANIA LEÓN: I think that in order to encourage conductors, who are music directors of orchestras, I think that a concerted effort has to be put in place, and composers have to be a little bit more vocal. I see my colleagues and we all talk and sometimes, you know, people sound a little bit frustrated. I think that we don’t accomplish anything, sitting at home and talking about the lack of opportunities. It’s much better to organize a group of composers and ask for a meeting with a music director. Give the music director encouragement to actually go out there and entice an audience as well, you know, about the fact that art hasn’t stopped and that includes music.

FRANK J. OTERI: I’m a composer and when I talk with other composers everybody says that one of the problems is that there’s a perception that contemporary music is not listener-friendly and then there’s a perception that audiences aren’t going to like it and that the older music is written by people with names that everybody knows and it’s going to sell. When I spoke to Zarin Mehta last month in Chicago, he said something that we don’t often consider. He said, “well, we only have a budget for 2 or 3 rehearsals with an orchestra, so it’s much easier for the orchestra to play a piece that they already are familiar with. It’s a lot cheaper.” And I was amazed, because I was blown away last year when the Chicago Symphony did the Messiaen Turangalîla-Symphony at Ravinia and they did that in three rehearsals. Our players are a lot better now than they were, say, in the 1920’s or 1930’s, when Varèse couldn’t get a good performance even after 11 rehearsals. But that’s a big issue. You’re introducing new repertoire, you come in as a guest conductor and say, okay, I want to do this program of new music. They don’t know you, they don’t know the repertoire, and you have to work from scratch with this material. How can we get around that problem?

RealPlayer  [58 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Sound sample – TANIA LEÓN: from Carabalí
performed by the Louisville Orchestra conducted by Gunther Schuller
(Louisville Orchestra First Edition Recordings LCD 10)

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TANIA LEÓN: Well, again, I was saying that, first of all, the way that moneys are put together for a season or for a specific program, you know, a lot more money could be actually raised if an audience was behind the concert, or behind an effort. And if an audience recognizes that our only way of leaving traces of our civilization for the next century is by actually fostering the works of the artists that are living at this point, or actually consummating the art of composing, so then therefore, we know that we will have to perform these works in order for these works to be able to make it to the end of the next century. And so therefore, it gives the audience much more insight and a bigger role in the life of a new work, even if they listen to the work only once. For an audience to be able to participate by planting the seeds of the life of that work is very important. For example, you know, the Bang of a Can effort of commissioning, or helping commission a work…

FRANK J. OTERI: The People’s Commissions.

TANIA LEÓN: That’s a brilliant idea. Because then the people that participate, even with one dollar, for that work to exist, I think, says to me that they have an emotional attachment to the work.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, one of the things that happened that was so interesting is when Meet the Composer initiated the orchestral residencies program, is that it had a two-way effect. On the one hand, suddenly, orchestras had composers working with them, so it wasn’t this mysterious thing that there was some composer from far away, the composer was actually on staff. But at the same time the composer got to work with the orchestral musicians and I think it changed the shape of what all American orchestral music was sounding like.

TANIA LEÓN: Absolutely. There are still some older residencies, but if it doesn’t work at that level, there is still an incredible community of composers out there. What if we donate one dollar each and buy a page in the New York Times, with the name of all of the composers, you know? You follow me?


TANIA LEÓN: Whether it’s in the city of New York or anywhere else in the nation, people will pay attention…

FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs]

TANIA LEÓN: …if they see all the names. There’s an incredible amount of composers.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, that’s what we’re trying to get across here at the American Music Center.

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly. So therefore, I mean, you have all these names with that advocacy. We need to be played; we need to be heard. We are the culture of the future. You know?

FRANK J. OTERI: And next year, we’re in the 21st Century and you’ll still have orchestras playing music now that’s not 100 years old, it’ll be 200 years old.

TANIA LEÓN: You see? At a given time, Beethoven was contemporary as well. You see? No one is saying don’t play Beethoven, but we are saying is what about these other works?

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, you know, I say don’t play Beethoven. And I’ll tell you why. Because, for me, growing up and listening to music, it took me a much longer time to appreciate Beethoven than to appreciate Varèse and Messiaen and Steve Reich.

TANIA LEÓN: I understand, but…

FRANK J. OTERI: I was able to relate to the dissonance, the harshness, and Beethoven didn’t sound radical to me, because I didn’t grow up with the context of Haydn and Mozart.

TANIA LEÓN: I understand, but we are talking about the politics of our world, right? And, you know, change is gradual. Change is never like, poof, change, that’s it, you know?


TANIA LEÓN: Okay. So the gradual change that we need now is actually the embrace of the audience that we are claiming who don’t go to the concerts.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right. There’s a whole generation now of audiences for whom the concert music of the 20th Century is not alien because they’re listening to Tchaikovsky or to Dvorák or to Mozart. It’s alien because they’re listening to alternative rock bands, they’re listening to Phish, they’re listening to Smashing Pumpkins, they’re listening to Lauryn Hill, or Beck, or music like that, and they’re not in touch with the concert hall tradition at all. And I think that if you’re going to bring younger people in who are interested in adventurous pop music, adventurous rock music, I think you’re more inclined to bring them in with contemporary music than you are with music of the past.

TANIA LEÓN: No one is objecting to that. But the big orchestras, the big institutions, have a natural nervousness as far as how they’re going to survive, how they’re going to balance their budgets, to actually be in the black as opposed to the red. So what I wanted to say, that, if our communities… You see, the composers we are talking about are not people that live elsewhere. They live in Brooklyn, they live in Manhattan, they live in Staten Island, they live in, you know, I mean, utilizing New York as an example, for example, right? These people have friends, these people have families, these people have colleagues, these people have… each of them, you know, self-contained has, let’s say, a hundred people. Right?


TANIA LEÓN: So if you put ten of them, you already have a thousand.

FRANK J. OTERI: And you can raise…

TANIA LEÓN: This is what I’m talking about. You can actually build up the consciousness that you are part of the creation of the culture of our time, to actually be part of what will be analyzed and talked about a century from now. That’s the main drama that I think is being played right now, that we need to be participants and not only, you know, which people, you know, I mean, we wish that it was different, but we have to do something about it. It’s what organizations such as the American Music Center, Meet The Composer and American Composers Forum are about. I think that all of these organizations are very good and strong organizations, yet, you know, the work is being done over here, a little bit over here, a little bit there, you know, and I think that what we require at this point is a little bit more of a pool of all these organizations coming together, even for a retreat or something like that, and sort of like merging of ideas in order for us to create a global approach.

FRANK J. OTERI: Look at other countries, and this is something I get back to with people so much of the time, you go to a country like Finland, and Sibelius is on the money. You go to a country like Germany. Clara Schumann is on the money. Not just a composer, a woman composer. In America, we have former politicians on the money. There’s no recognition, you know. Duke Ellington isn’t on our money, Charles Ives isn’t on our money, Gershwin isn’t on our money, Amy Beach isn’t on our money. But how do we get the awareness of who the great American creators are, and how do we compete with the other countries’ musical culture in the classical tradition, when their promotion of their own culture is so strong?

TANIA LEÓN: Well, this is precisely what I was talking about. I mean, it has to do with the fact that they recognize culture. You know, they recognize their culture. So therefore, culture is what they recognize. It’s not only their culture. If I have the opportunity of being commissioned by an orchestra in Germany — I don’t live in Germany. Why are they giving me a commission? You see what I mean?


TANIA LEÓN: And I think that it has to do with their tradition of culture. You know, I might not be a woman Beethoven, but maybe they find something that is intriguing to them, to the point that they say, “okay, shall we have a work by this person?” And I don’t know what the mechanism is by which they actually procure the money. But they find the money, and they call you, for example, the composer, and they say “we would like you to write a piece. Can you write a piece?” You write a piece and you go there, and it’s a big event, because you wrote this piece. And these people don’t even know the street where you live in New York!


TANIA LEÓN: So therefore, for me, you know, what I think is that we have this awareness of culture. Culture is something that needs to be actually elevated to a height where people really feel a part of it, or that people feel that they want to know who these people are.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, here, if you have a piece of music on a program, it tends to be, okay, let’s do a contemporary music piece at the beginning of an orchestral program. It’s like a 10-minute piece, and then let’s get through it and forget about it and then that’s the end. And now… I think there’s beginning to be a change. I was at the national conference of the American Symphony Orchestra League, and finally, in the very last year of the 20th Century, 1999, well, okay, they say we need to focus on contemporary American composers. I’m like, wow, finally, finally there’s going to be incentive to play, not just 10-minute works that are concert openers, but symphonies written by Americans, concertos, you know, large-scale pieces of music, that… There’s finally an attempt at doing this, but we need to do much more.

TANIA LEÓN: Look at what is happening, for example, with Michael Tilson Thomas at the San Francisco Symphony. You see? He has a developed an incredible audience, you know. He’s playing incredible materials. The materials are very, very contemporary, and there is some kind of enthusiasm about the whole thing. Is the audience that is going to these concerts all that knowledgeable about the materials? I don’t know. I have no idea.

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